'Accept things as they are or take responsibility for changing them.'
‘Accept things as they are or take responsibility for changing them.’

Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom gathers to turn anxiety into inspiration.

December 2016 – More action. Less fear.

In a nutshell, that’s the advice that U.S. Senator Cory Booker gave some 450 Jewish and Muslim women who gathered at Drew University for the third annual leadership conference of the Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom. The conference, which was welcomed by Drew’s Center on Religion, Culture & Conflict, attracted women from across the U.S. and two other countries and was featured in The New York Times. Ten students also participated, as volunteers.

In his address, the Senator recognized the pain of seeing recent incidences of hate and people spewing hurtful words, acknowledging the toll that it takes.

Addressing 450 women from across the U.S.
Addressing 450 women from across the U.S.

“There’s nothing wrong with feeling a sadness or a hurt,” said Booker, who represents New Jersey. “But the question is not what the external stimulus is, it’s how we respond in the light of it.” He added that “you have a decision to make in every moment of life: accept things as they are or take responsibility for changing them.”

The Dec. 4 conference, which featured more than a dozen speakers, workshops and group prayer, took place amid a flurry of violence against immigrants in the U.S. and a call for registering Muslims in America. So, of course, many attendees were anxious. Booker, however, turned anxiety into inspiration by telling a story about his early years in politics.

Do something’

Attendees cluster at round tables of eight to 10.
Attendees cluster at round tables of eight to 10.

In the late 1990s, a year after becoming a City Councilman in Newark, N.J., Booker became frustrated because he hadn’t realize his goals, in part due to opposition from other council members and the mayor. In fact, he was thinking about quitting politics altogether when a tenant leader talked to him and said simply, “You should do something.”

The leader was nonspecific in her direction but within days Booker had pitched a tent between two unsafe housing projects and begun a fast to protest the problems there. He also called a press conference to spread the word and soon, a wave of support arrived—from correctional officers, pastors, business leaders, college students and the mayor of West Orange. At the end of 10 days, even Mayor Sharpe James showed up and hugged him, promising to help the projects.

Sisterhood Executive Director Sheryl Olitzsky
Sisterhood Executive Director Sheryl Olitzsky

In short, shining a light on a problem in a public way improved the lives of others—and reaffirmed Booker’s belief in public service. Later, he became mayor of Newark and a Senator and now he, like the Sisterhood, faces a climate of hostility toward minorities. He urged the group, however, to step up and help those who need it most.

“Change will never happen in an instant,” Booker added. “Change comes from determined people who never, ever stop working for change, for love, for progress. We are all here not just because of dramatic speeches or legislation. We’re all here because of ordinary Americans who showed an extraordinary commitment every day of their lives, doing small acts of kindness, decency and love.”

Actress and activist Milana Vayntrub
Actress and activist Milana Vayntrub

Having an impact

Other speakers issued similar calls to action, be it locally, nationally or globally. And as the Sisterhood now has 50 chapters in two dozen states, the collective impact of its members can be significant. As Executive Director Sheryl Olitzky put it, “We need to show the world that we are Americans, we are here because we love each other, we are overcoming hate.”

Actress and activist Milana Vayntrub spoke passionately about helping refugees after showing a short film about her impromptu 2015 trip to a Greek island, where Syrians were arriving by boat. The film now has 236,000 views on YouTube and the experience inspired Vayntrub—herself a refugee whose parents immigrated to the U.S. from Uzbekistan in 1989—to create a website that connects people with organizations that aid refugees.

Booker with student volunteers and Jonathan Golden of the Center on Religion, Culture & Conflict
Booker with student volunteers and Jonathan Golden of the Center on Religion, Culture & Conflict

“When you see something like that, when you experience people who kiss the ground because they’re so happy they are to be safe, you realize how lucky we are to take being alive for granted, how lucky we are to wake up in the morning with any other problem,” said Vayntrub, who acts in movies and TV shows and is the star of AT&T’s “Lily” campaign. “The fact that we are breathing and here—we are so fortunate: the gift. So, the question I had to ask myself is, what am I going to do with that gift?”

During her presentation, Vayntrub directed attendees write down personal goals, get out of their seats and share them with others. To help them identify goals, she rattled off a series of questions: Who do you want to become? What would you like to learn? How are you a peacemaker? Who would you like to surround yourself with? Near the end of the exercise, Vayntrub pressed them to identify something they can do immediately, before the glow of the conference wears off.

In sum, the speaker relayed the thoughts that ran through her head when she cut short a vacation with her father to help Syrians. And if that wasn’t enough to inspire the crowd, there were also the fifteen words on a big screen next to her: “I always wondered why somebody didn’t do something about that, then I realized I am somebody.”